India: Heroes to the Himalayas

It was on a whim that STEPHANIE DOWNEY and PHIL McGOVERN hired a couple of Hero roadsters for the weekend. It became a real adventure when they took them to the Himalayas.

After twenty-four hours on Indian Railways and an hour on a disintegrating State Roadways bus, we had arrived in the ice cold sunshine of Mussoorie, 2000m up in the hills of northern Uttar Pradesh. There's a 200km ride ahead of us, on Hero roadsters through the foothills of India's great mountain range, before the long freewheel down to the plains and the city of Delhi. We work our way through the swarming bazaar, pausing to pick up a couple of the fur hats. Everyone else seems to have.

Then it's into the saddle and out of the town, our 1000 rupee (£20) Hero 'Jets' taking us past expensive private schools and lavish villas with names like Langdale and Woodstock. A gleaming Morris Minor sits resplendent in a driveway: we're in the stockbroker belt of Uttar Pradesh.

But soon the landscape opens up. The bare, bedrizzled mountainside, dotted with ruined stone farmhouses and abandoned quarries, is reminiscent of North Wales. But always there are people around: shepherds, gangs of men mending the road, gangs of women carrying bundles of wood or fodder on their heads. We don't cycle much; our bikes aren't up to it. Although their long-raked forks, fat 28" wheels and sprung saddles are excellent for soaking up the bumps in the road, they simply don't do hills. So we spend most of the day either pushing them or resting at roadside chai stalls, enjoying sweet, milky tea. We have a good time just the same; almost no traffic, and there's a nice stretch of downhill which lets us roll into Dhanolti with an average speed for the day of 5kph. We've covered only 24km, but are half a kilometre higher than we were this morning.

The next morning we continue eastwards out of the village, maintaining our height for much of the day before descending through dense pine forests. As luck would have it, we find that although the downhills are long and gradual, the climbs are generally short and steep. We tackle the latter by bus, each time coaxing our majestic bikes up onto the roof. Realising that this is going to be a central part of the journey we buy some rope, discovering that here it's sold not by length but by weight. We settle for half a kilo.

Indian bus culture is amazing. Goodness knows what it is that conductors and passengers shout at each other, but at least they always left us alone. Sometimes there is no room for the conductor to move along the aisle, so people who have just got on simply pass their fare down from passenger to passenger. Eventually the ticket and change work their way back.

One day we find ourselves in Cumbria. Or so it seems for a moment, cycling along a broad river valley. But here the stone and slate villages have a hint of coriander mixed in with the rich aroma of smoke drifting from their chimneys. Trees are fingered green with banana. In the river, a man is washing his buffalo. A rather surprised shop-keeper sells me a tasty-looking loaf of crusty white bread. But as soon as I feel its weight, I realise that I've bought a huge block of unrefined sugar, with a taste a little like Kendal Mint Cake; but without the mint.

We enjoy some lazy descents, often freewheeling for ten or twenty kilometres at a time, but the road surface is seldom very road-like, and we can't let fly. So we clench the rod brakes, the levers cutting furrows into our fingers to match the road. Then we're back on a bus, leading up into the Alaknanda valley towards the Chinese border. We hit the snow line at Joshimath, and that's the end of the road with 15000 foot peaks looming above. This is an army town, with crowded streets, helicopters clatter overhead and army trucks nose their way through the bustle. India fought and lost a short border war with China in 1962 and clearly doesn't want to be caught napping again.

Cycling back down the valley is ridiculously hard. Theoretically, it's downhill. But the road appears to have been designed by a lunatic: it continually works its way up the valley sides, before plunging back down to the river and starting again. Obliged to do the same, we cycle and walk, cycle and walk through the cold, grey, rainy rockscape. Hardly an exotic moment, but we're diverted by troupes of monkeys scampering across the road in front of us and melting into the mist.

We revert to our bus-and-downhill strategy. Until we make one of our biggest tactical errors - early morning, keen to get going, facing a steep uphill section, we find that the bus doesn't turn up. We decide to press on, under our own steam. There's a steep uphill section ahead, and an afternoon bus that we could wait for, but we're on the road, so let's keep pedalling. The climb throws one false peak at us after another, until we have walked almost all of the thirty kilometres to the village of Shaama. It is early evening when we arrive, and only moments later, our afternoon bus rolls up, accompanied by a mobile cinema. Plans for an early night are cancelled, as the village revels in a motley collection of short films, including a Russian comedy about the evils of fishing with dynamite. Despite the screen blowing down in the wind, and the film catching fire, the crowd is riveted.

The next day's descent is, if anything, more exhausting than the climb. Rattling and clanking along the road we are forced to ignore the landscape opening up around us. Or rather, to concentrate very intently on the particular part of it threatening to throw us from our mounts. Dodging potholes and boulders, it's more like scree-running than cycling. On this 'main road' we meet only one other vehicle in eight hours.

In the afternoon we reach tarmac, and are able to freewheel down into a lush and welcoming valley. Here we pass a man with a wardrobe on his back. Further on, a double-bed and a filing cabinet come into view, escorted by a band playing bagpipes and drums. At the head of the procession, riding a horse that is prancing to the beat of what can only be described as an Arabic-Celtic medley, we see a man dressed largely in banknotes. It must be a wedding - or sunstroke.

The final descent from the mountains begins at Almora, a pretty town of narrow, cobbled streets and wooden houses. For twenty kilometres the road surface is absolutely smooth and for the first time we can safely take our hands off the brakes. We hurtle down, pushed downwards by the mountains standing behind us. Traffic is heavier now. Overloaded trucks struggle up the hills, pouring out black smoke. They struggle down too, keeping in first gear for fear of brake failure. For once we are by far the fastest vehicles on the road.

We flash though prosperous Bhowali, and on through the upmarket lakeside resort of Bhimtal. But suddenly, as we round another bend, we are hit by waves of hot air. It feels like we are approaching a distant but raging furnace. We stop here, and spend a long time looking at and through the haze of the North Indian Plane spread out before us. Our ride over, we descend reluctantly, wondering whether we will ever again cycle anywhere quite so exciting, so baffling and yet so hospitable.

And on such great bikes.

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